THE PRIMER PROJECT


An activity of the Primer Group

 

A Special Integration Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
originally SGSR, Society for General Systems Research.

Presenting



THE EVOLUTION OF SYSTEMS INQUIRY Part 2



Bela H. Banathy

International Systems Institute and the Saybrook Graduate School

 

ORGANIZED DEVELOPMENTS

We can account for several major developments that reflect the evolution of the systems movement. The main-stream of the movement was developed around the ideas presented in the text above. Parallel with the mainstream, we can account for other strands that include operations research, systems engineering, and cybernetics. Others emerged as branches of the main-stream; such as living systems theory, soft-systems and human systems theory, systems design, and critical systems theory.

Parallel Developments

Operations Research. During the second world war, the complex problems of logistics and resource management of waging a war became the genesis of developing the quantitative analysis of rather closed systems. It was from this orientation from which Operation Research and Management Science emerged during the fifties. Operations Research (OR) flourished during the sixties, but in the seventies--due to the changing nature of socio-technical systems contexts--it has gone through a major shift toward a less quantitative orientation.

Systems Engineering is concerned with the design of closed man-machine systems and large-scale socio-technical systems. Systems Engineering (SE) can be portrayed as a system of methods and tools, specific activities for problem solutions, and a set of relations between the tools and the activities. The tools include language, mathematics, and graphics by which systems engineering communicates. The content of SE includes a variety of algorithms and concepts which enable various activities. The first major work in SE was published by A.D. Hall in 1962. He presented a comprehensive, three- dimensional morphology for systems engineering. In the late ‘70’ Sage suggested a change in the directions of SE. He used the word ‘system’ to refer to the application of systems science and methodologies associated with the science of problem solving. The word ‘engineering’ means not only the mastery and manipulation of physical data but also it implies social and behavioral consideration as inherent parts of the engineering design process.

During the sixties and early seventies, practitioners of Operations Research and Systems Engineering attempted to transfer their approaches into the context of social systems. It lead to disasters. It was this period when ‘ social engineering’ emerged as an approach to address societal problems. A recognition of failed attempts have lead to changes in direction, best manifested by the position taken by Sage, as described in the paragraph above.

 

Cybernetics

Cybernetics is concerned with the understanding of self-organization of human, artificial, and natural systems; the understanding of understanding; and its relation and relevance to other transdisciplinary approaches. Cybernetics, as part of the systems movement, evolved through two phases; First Order Cybernetics: the cybernetics of the observed system and Second Order Cybernetics: the cybernetics of observing system.

First Order Cybernetics, the early formulation of cybernetics inquiry, was concerned with communication and control in the animal and the machine, explained by Wiener. The emphasis on the “in” allowed focus on the process of self-organization and self- regulation, on circular causal feedback mechanisms, together with the systemic principles that underlie them. These principles underlay the computer/cognitive sciences and are credited with being at the hearth of neural network approaches in computing.

Second Order Cybernetics, as a concept was coined by Heinz Foerster who said that we are now in the possession of the truism that a description (of the universe) implies one who describes, who observes it. What we need now is a description of the ‘describer’ or, in other words, we need a theory of the observer. Second-order cybernetic, through the concept of self-reference, wants to explore the meaning of cognition and communication within the natural and social sciences, the humanities, information science; and in such social practices as design, education, organization, art management, politics, etc..

THE CONTINUING EVOLUTION OF THE MAIN-STREAM IDEA

Living Systems Theory (LST)

LST was developed by Miller in his work: Living Systems as a continuation and elaboration of the orgasmic orientation of Bertalanffy. The theory is a conceptual scheme for the description and analysis of concrete identifiable living systems. It describes seven levels of living systems, ranging from the lower levels of cell, organ, and organism, to higher levels of group, organizations, societies, and supranational systems. The central thesis of Living Systems Theory is that at each level a system is characterized by the same 19 critical subsystems whose processes are essential to life. A set of these SYSTEMS processes information and an other set processes matter and energy. Two subsystems process matter/energy and information. Living System Theory presents a common framework for analyzing structure and process and identifying the health, the well being of systems at various levels of complexity. The theory has been applied by a method--called Living Systems Process Analysis--to the study of complex problem situations, embedded in a diversity of fields and activities.

 

SOFT (HUMAN) SYSTEMS INQUIRY

During the late '70s and '80s, a whole range of systems thinking-based inquiries emerged, based on what is called: soft-systems thinking. These are all relevant to human and social systems as well as socio-technical and socio-economic systems.

Human Systems Inquiry focuses on systems theory, systems philosophy, systems methodology and their applications on social or human systems. In portraying Human Systems Soft System Inquiry; I (a) present some of their basic characteristics, (b) discuss the nature of their problem situations, (c) highlight their ethical issues and (d) introduce the "soft-system" approach, social systems design and critical systems orientation.

Basic Characteristics of Human/Social Systems

These systems are open systems. They are sustained by their internal and external relatons and the process of regulation. The limits within which they can be sustained are the conditions of their stabnility. They depend on and contribute to their environment. The are wholes. but are also parts of larger systews and their constituents may also be constituents of other systems.

In the late '70s and early '80s, it was generally realized that the nature of issues in human/social systems are "soft" issues in contrast with "hard "issues and problems in systems engineering and other quantitative focused systems inquiry. Hard systems thiking and aproaches were not usable in the context of human activity systems.

Change in human systems is enevitable. Systems adapt to environmenatal changes and in a changing environment this becomes a continuous process. At times. however. adaptation does not suffice, and the whole systems might change. Through co-evolution and co-creation change between the systems and its environment is a mutual recursive phenomenon. Human/Social Systems (HSS) are very different from natural and engineered systems. Natural and enginneered systems cannot be other than what they are . Human activity systems. on the other hand. are manifested through the perceptions of human beings who are free to attibute meanings to what they perceive. There will never be a single (testable) account of human activity systems. only a set of possible accounts, all valid according to particular Weltanshaungen, said Checkland. He further says. that HSS are structured sets of people who make up the system coupled with a collection of activities concerned with processing information. making plans, performing. and monitoring performance, etc.

Ackoff suggested that human system are purposeful systems that have purposeful parts and are parts of larger purposeful systems. This observation reveals three fundamental issues. namely, how to design and manage human systems so that they can effectively and efficiently serve (a) their own purposes. (b) the purposes of the purposeful parts and people in the system. (c) and the purposes of the larger system(s) of which they are part. These functions are called: (a) self-directedness. (b) humanizaton. and (c) environmentalization, respectively.

Viewing human systems from an evolutionary perspective. Jantsch suggested that according to the dualistic paradigm. adaptation is a response to something that evolved outside of the system. He notes, however, that with the emergence of the self-organizing paradigm, a scientifically founded non-dualistic view became possible. This view is process orientated and establishes that evolution is an integral part of self-organization. True self-organization incorporates self-transcendence, the creative reaching out of a human system beyond its boundaries, Jantsch concludes: creation is the core of evolution. it is the joy of life. it is not just the adaptation. not just securing survival.

The Nature of Problem Situation in Human/Social Systems

Working with human systems. we are confronted with problem situations that comprise a system of problems rather than a collection of problems. Problems are embedded in uncetainty and require subjective interpretation. Churchman suggested that in working with human systems subjectivity cannot be avoided. What really matters. he says. are systems that are unique. and the task is to account for their uniqueness. Our main tool in working with human sysems is subjectivity: reflection on the sources of knowledge. social practice. community, interest in and commitment to ideas. especially the moral idea, affectivity, and faith.

Working with human/social systems (HSS) we must recognize that they are always unbounded. Factors assumed to a part of a problem are inseparblely linked to many other factors. A technical problem of transportation. such as the building of a freeway, becomes a land-use problem. linked with economic, environmental, conservation, eithical, and political issues. Can we really draw a boundary? When we ask to improve a situation. particularly if it is a public one, we find ourselves facing not a problem. but a cluster of problems. often called "problematique" said Pecceil the founder of the Club of Rome. Within a probematique. it is difficult to pinpoint individual problems and propose individual solutions. Each problem is related to every other problem. each apparent solution to a problem may aggravate or interfere with others; and none of these problems can be tackled using linear or sequential methods.

Working wih HSS we should always include those who are affected by the problem. Furthermore we must differentiate between well structured and well defined problems in which the initial conditions, the goals and the necessary operations can all be specified, from ill-defined or ill-structured problems, the kind in which initial conditions, the goals and the allowable operations can not extrapolated from the problem Discussing this issue, Rittell and Webber suggested that science and engineering are dealing with well structured or tame problems. But this stance is not applicable to open social systems. Still many social science professionals have mimicked the cognitive style of the scientists and the operational style of the enginneering. But social problems are inherently wicked problems. Thus, every solution of a wicked problem is tentative and incomplete and it changes as we move toward the solution. As the solultion changes --as it is elaborated -- so does our understanding of the problem. Considering this issue in the context of systems design. the "ill-behaved" nature of design problem situations frustrates all attempts to start out with an information phase and analysis phase, at the end of which a clear definition of the problem is rendered and objectives are defined that become the basis of systhesis, during which a "monastic" solution can be worked out. Systems design requires a continuous recursive interaction between the initial phase that triggers design and the final state, when design is completed.

Ethical Issues in HSSS: The Ethics of the Whole System.

Churchman in his various works has been the most articulate and most effective advocate of ethical systems theory and morality in human systems inquiry. Human systems inquiry, Churchman says, has to be value orientated and it must be guided by the social imperative, which dictates that technological effciency must be subordinated to social efficiency. He speaks for a science of values and the development of methods by which to verify ethical judgements. He took issue with the design approach where the focus is on various segments of the system. When the designer detects a problem in a part, he moves to modify it. This approach is based on the separability principle of incrementalism. He advocates "nonseparability," when the application of decision rules depends on the state of the whole system and when a certain degree of instability of a part occurs, the designer can recognize this event and change the system so that the part becomes stable. It can be seen that design, properly viewed. is an enormous speculation about possibilities. A liberated designer will look at present practice as a point of departure at best. Design is a thought process and a communication process. Successful design is one that enables someone to transfer thought into action or into another design.

 

Soft-systems Methodology, System Design, Critical Systems Thinking

Soft-systems Methodology developed by Checkland, considers methodology as a learning system which uses systems ideas to formulate basic mental acts of four kinds: perceiving, predicting, comparing, and deciding for action. The output of the methodology is thus very different from the output of systems engineering; it is learning which leads to decision to take certain actions, knowing that this will lead not to 'the problem' being now 'solved' but to changed situatuon and new learning. The methodology is a direct consequence of the concept human activity system. We attribute meaning to all human activity. Out attributions ar meaningful in terms of our particular image of the world, which - in general - we take for granted.

Systems Design, in the context of social systems is a future creative disciplined inquiry. People engage in this inquiry in order to design a system that realizes their vision of the future society, their own expectaitons, and the expectations of their environment. Social system design is a relatively new intellectual technology. It emerged as a manifestation of open system thinking and corresponding ethically based soft-systems approaches. This new intellectual technology emerged, just in time, as a disciplined inquiry that enables us to align our social sstems with the new realities of the information/knowledge age.

Early pioneers of social systems design in teh '70s include: Simon, Jones, Churchman, Jantsch, Warfield and Sage. The watershed year of comprehensive statements on systems design was 1981; marked by the works of Ackoff, Checkland, and Nadler. Then came the work of Argyris, Ulrich, Gross, Morgan, Warfield, Nadler & Hibino and Banathy.

Prior to the emergence of open systems design, the improvement approach to systems change manifested traditional social planning. This approach -- still widely practiced today -- reduces the problem to managable pieces and seeks solutions to each. Practitioners of this approach believe that solving the problem piece-by-piece ultimately will correct the larger issue it aims to remedy. But systems designeers know. that "getting rid of what is not wanted does not give you what is desired.: In sharp contrast with traditional social planning. systems design -- represented by the authors above -- seeks to understand the problem situation as a systems of interconnected, intedependant and interacting problems; and seeks to create a design as a system of interconnected, interdependant, and interacting solution ideas. Systems designers envision the entity to be designed as a whole. as one that is designed from the synthesis of the interacton of its parts. Systems design requires both coordination and integrtion. We need to design all parts interactively, therefore simultaneously. This requires coordination. The requirement of designing for interdependency across all systems levels invite integration. In an age of continuous and intensified change the understanding of the role of systems design in creating our future and the development of competence in systems design are of the highest priority.

Critical Systems Thinking emerged as "lessons learned" from systems inquiry. Spearheaded by the works of Jackson. Flood, and Ulrich, this new orientation challanges some of the earlier orientations and embraces a set of core commitments such as " critical awareness, social awareness human emancipation and complemenarity." Critical awareness closely examines the values and assumptions that enter into systems inquiry and systems design. It provides tools that are useful in applying critical awareness. such as critical systems heuristics. Social awareness (a) recognizes social and organizational issues that guide systems intervention, (b) contemplates the social consequences of our intervention. and (c) calls for a free and open debate on the justification of the proposed approach. Human emancipation aims (a) to ensure the well-being of all individuals involved and the full development of their potentials, and (b) prevent coercion and exercize of power that would prevent open and free discussion of the issues. Complementarity suggests that various systems trend express various rationalities and theoritical positions. These should be respected and their development should be encouraged. It stands for a commitment to the complementary and infomed use of the various systems approaches. whenever their use is appropriate to the context of specific social conditions and situations.


Part 3